The Brocklehursts have always liked to be first. In 1973 their site was the first in Northampton to go self-service and over the years they have continued to innovate and stay ahead of the competition, racking up a string of further ’firsts’ along the way. So when Karl Brocklehurst stepped up to collect the industry’s highest accolade at the Forecourt Trader of the Year Awards, the family business was right where it likes to be - firmly in the limelight.
The award has capped a great year for Westbridge Motors, which has seen its new 3,000sq ft Spar store - opened following a re-vamp less than a year ago - perform beyond expectations, with sales rocketing to £50,000 a week. And with a smart and spacious forecourt pushing fuel volumes at a steady six million litres a year, the company is successfully continuing a family tradition that began with just a single row of pumps and a workshop, which Karl’s grandfather, John, and his brother, Cecil, built after purchasing a field in 1937.
In those days the site was branded Shell-Mex and BP, and was on the second busiest road feeding Northampton. Over the years this traditional forecourt business has built up a strong local reputation. The site has expanded, adapted and even survived a flood in 1998, opening just three days later despite extensive water damage. At the heart of the operation has always been a family with a keen eye for new opportunities. Combine this with endless enthusiasm, sprinkle in a little bit of luck along the way, and it has made for a winning formula.
"Not everything we’ve done has been a success, but we’re always willing to give things a go. If it doesn’t work then we’ll try something else," says Karl. "The award is recognition for a lot of hard work over the years."
As well as fuel and the workshop, the Westbridge Motors business includes long-established taxi and breakdown recovery services, as well as a wash centre, with conveyor wash, housed in an impressive glass building. As their website says, there’s more to Westbridge than just a filling station. "Our success is a combination of all these features," says Karl’s charismatic father Nick, who joined the family firm in the 1960s, aged 18, and after an impressive career now aims to take a step back, to allow Karl to move into the limelight.
While older brother Robert looked after the service side of the business, Nick devoted his energies to the forecourt, at times taking on several oil company sites as well. And energy is certainly something he’s never been lacking. As well as continually developing his own business, Nick has become a well-known figure within the industry, representing independents as a regional chairman for both the Petrol Retailers Association and the BP National Forum.
== LEARNING CURVE ==
Like most good businessmen, the Brocklehursts have been quick to learn from other successful operators. Nick was among the original members of the Lakeside Group of retailers and says its founder Robert Fraser was a big influence when he decided to modernise the Westbridge Motors site in 1998. "Robert’s input changed our company’s thinking about shops," says Nick. "He said we should go for a bigger shop so we went from a small kiosk to almost 3,000sq ft - from one extreme to the other. It was a big step and I was incredibly nervous. We were changing from being a forecourt operator to a retailer. I originally trained as a motor engineer, not a shopkeeper, so I’ve had to learn the sales side of things."
Designed by Alec Cornish-Trestrail of ACT Design - who has now worked for five Forecourt Trader of the Year winners - the site was refitted to BP’s highest spec and remained open throughout the £750,000 redevelopment, operating 24-hours a day from a Portakabin.
"We’ve always been well-known for our 24-hour operation," explains Nick. "All the departments of the business are 24-hour and have been for many years." This started shortly after the M1 opened in the early 1960s, when the Brocklehursts saw an opportunity to launch a 24-hour breakdown and recovery service. "Cars weren’t built to travel at motorway speeds in those days and everyone seemed to break down in Northamptonshire."
As well as the site redevelopment, 1998 also saw Karl join the family business as forecourt manager, having spent four years working in sales and finance for Rover. "I wanted to do my own thing first rather than going straight into the business and I’m glad I did," he explains. "Working for a big company gave me a different perspective and I’ve certainly been able to bring ideas from a larger business to a smaller one."
Karl was joined by sister Annabel, as assistant manager, and the brother-and-sister-team oversaw the burgeoning shop.
The late 1990s also saw the site’s impressive car wash facilities installed as a second phase of redevelopment - and lady luck was certainly smiling on Westbridge for this one. Now-defunct company Valetmatic had been looking for a show site and agreed to build and operate a wash centre, leasing land the Brocklehursts had already set aside. As well as installing top-of-the-range Istobal equipment, Valetmatic set up a new company called WashMe, giving the site its own corporate identity, complete with logo, uniforms and a website. When the company went into receivership in 2002, the Brocklehursts bought the complete package for less than £20,000. "The car wash provides very valuable frontage," says Nick.
== shop success ==
In 2000 the Westbridge site became one of the first forecourts in Northampton to secure an alcohol licence and shop sales had risen to £37,000 a week, compared to £8,000 in the kiosk. With the shop firmly established, the next logical step was to link up with a symbol group to further boost the offer. This was a decision that Karl and Nick thought long and hard about. "We wanted to get it right and probably spent a good four years thinking about it. During that time there was a lot going on among the symbol groups," says Karl.
"We eventually chose Spar in April last year because we felt it fitted best for the area we’ve got and the customer profile. We’re on the edge of an industrial area, but we’ve also got chimney pots nearby, so customers vary from ’white-van man’ to families."
Spar wholesaler, AF Blakemore, co-invested in the £150,000 refit, which included moving the shop wall back to give extra selling space. This enabled the site to further expand its already successful alcohol offer - sales now average at least £10,000 a week. "We were originally going to put in a 5m chiller for alcohol, but on the advice of the other Lakeside retailers, increased this to 7.5m. The decision has paid for itself five times over," says Nick.
As well as alcohol, chilled and fresh foods have also been expanded. This area includes an attractive oval-shaped chiller, which catches your eye as soon as you walk into the shop.
== TECHNOLOGY ==
As well as the ’big one’, the Brocklehursts also picked up this year’s Forecourt Trader award for best use of retail technology for a second time, having previously won in 2001.
The site has been one of the first in the UK to adopt Edensure’s new remote wet stock monitoring system. Based on US software, Westbridge has helped Edensure improve the service for the UK market. The site has also been trialling Big Media in-store TV and the Magnecap device, which prevents misfueling.
All in all the future’s looking very bright for Westbridge Motors. A new supply deal is about to be signed and all the major oil companies want that Brocklehurst signature.
Meanwhile, the shop has exceeded its first-year target in less than nine months, an achievement made all the more satisfying by the arrival of some unexpected competition. "We were horrified when we found out that Asda had taken over a store just 400 yards away to trial its new Essentials format," says Nick. "We thought it would scupper our plans, but it hasn’t made any difference to us at all. Business is booming."
=== leading the way ===
? First self-service site in Northampton in 1973
? One of first independent sites in the area to offer a local fuel card
? First site in England to offer LPG
? One of the first sites in Northampton to obtain an alcohol licence in 2000
? First premises in Northampton to put in for a 24-hour licence last year, beating the supermarkets and local nightspots
? One of the first sites in the UK to adopt the Edensure wet-stock monitoring system
=== fast facts ===
? One of the longest-established sites in Northampton. Business includes vehicle repairs, breakdown recovery and taxi service.
? Fuel volumes around 6mlpa.
? Shop sales average around £50,000 a week.
? Site open 24-hours.
? 3,000sq ft Spar store with extensive alcohol offer, Bake & Bite and 2 ATMs.
? Wash centre branded WashMe, with dedicated staff offering full valeting service, as well as conveyor wash and jet wash.